The general who is executing President Vladimir Putin’s new military strategy in Ukraine is known for his brutality – for bombing civilians in the Russian campaign in Syria. He also played a role in the deaths of three protesters in Moscow during the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, which hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.
Bald and fierce – looking General Sergei Surovikin was put in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine on October 8 after what has been a faltering invasion that has seen a number of chaotic withdrawals and other setbacks during the nearly eight months of war .
Putin ordered the 56-year-old professional soldier after an apparent truck bombing of the strategic bridge to the Crimean peninsula that embarrassed the Kremlin and created logistical problems for the Russian troops.
Russia responded with a barrage of attacks in Ukraine, which Putin said targeted the downing of energy infrastructure and Ukrainian military command centers. Such attacks continue daily, bombarding power plants and other facilities with cruise missiles and waves of Iranian-made drones.
Surovikin will also keep his job as an air force chief, a position that could help coordinate the air strikes with other operations.
During the most recent bombings, some Russian war bloggers carried a statement attributed to Surovikin announcing his intention to continue the attacks with relentless vigor in an attempt to force the Kiev government into submission.
“I don’t want to sacrifice the lives of Russian soldiers in a guerrilla war against hordes of fanatics armed by NATO,” the bloggers quoted his statement as saying. “We have enough technical resources to force Ukraine to surrender.”
While the truth of the statement could not be confirmed, it appears to reflect the same heavy-handed approach Surovikin took in Syria, where he oversaw the destruction of entire cities to wash away the rebel resistance without paying much attention to the civilian population. Those indiscriminate bombings have been condemned by international human rights organizations, and some media reports have referred to him as “General Armageddon.”
Putin awarded Surovikin the Hero of Russia Medal, the country’s highest award, in 2017 and promoted him to general.
Kremlin hawks praised Surovikin’s appointment to Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire businessman dubbed “Putin’s chief” who owns a prominent military contractor who plays a key role in the fighting in Ukraine, praised him as “the best commander in the Russian army”.
But while hardliners expected Surovikin to step up attacks on Ukraine, his initial public statements after his appointment sounded more like an acknowledgment of the Russian military’s vulnerabilities than stormy threats.
In comments to Russian state television, Surovikin acknowledged that Russian forces in southern Ukraine were in a “rather difficult position” against the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
In carefully written comments Surovikin appeared to read from a teleprompter, he said further action in the region will depend on the evolving combat situation. Observers interpreted his statement as an attempt to prepare the public for a possible Russian withdrawal from the strategic southern city of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
Surovikin began his military career with the Soviet army in the 1980s and was appointed infantry platoon commander as a young lieutenant. When he later rose to the rank of Air Force Chief, it aroused mixed reactions in the ranks, as it was the first time the job had been given to an infantry officer.
He found himself in the middle of a political storm in 1991.
When members of the Communist Party’s old guard staged a hard coup in August of that year, briefly ousting Gorbachev and sending troops to Moscow to enforce a state of emergency, Surovikin commanded one of the mechanized infantry battalions that rolled into the capital. .
Population resistance grew rapidly and in the final hours of the three-day coup, protesters blocked an armored convoy led by Surovikin and attempted to set fire to several vehicles. In a chaotic fight, two protesters were shot and a third was crushed by an armored vehicle.
The coup failed later that day and Surovikin was quickly arrested. He spent seven months behind bars pending an investigation, but was eventually acquitted and even promoted to major after investigators concluded that he was only performing his duties.
Another turning point in his career came in 1995, when Surovikin was convicted of illegal possession and trafficking of firearms while studying at a military academy. He was sentenced to one year in prison, but the conviction was quickly overturned.
He steadily rose through the ranks, commanding units deployed to the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, commanding troops sent to Chechnya, and serving in other posts throughout Russia.
He was appointed commander of the Russian armed forces in Syria in 2017 and served there for a second time in 2019 as Moscow attempted to keep President Bashar Assad’s regime afloat and help it regain ground amid a devastating civil war.
In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch cited Surovikin, along with Putin, Assad and other figures, as responsible for the violations during the 2019-20 Syrian offensive in Idlib province.
He apparently has a temper that has not endeared him to subordinates, according to Russian media. An officer under Surovikin complained to prosecutors that the general had beaten him after becoming angry about how he had voted in the parliamentary elections; another subordinate allegedly shot himself. Investigators found no wrongdoing in either case.
His record in Syria could have been a factor behind his nomination to Ukraine, as Putin has upped the ante and reversed a string of humiliating defeats.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has repeatedly called for more strikes in Ukraine, praised Surovikin as “a true general and a warrior, experienced, farsighted and powerful who puts patriotism, honor and dignity above all else.
“The united forces group is now in safe hands,” said Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, expressing confidence that he will “improve the situation”.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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